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Start Spreading the News: 'Sinatra' Solar Home Taking Shape

UNLV team readying its aging-in-place home for the prestigious Solar Decathlon competition.

Campus News  |  Aug 24, 2017  |  By Jason Scavone
construction site

A team of UNLV students are building an aging-in-place home for the U.S. Department of Energy's 2017 Solar Decathlon. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

This solar house is starting to look like a solar home.

With a date in Denver on Oct. 5-15, the UNLV Solar Decathlon team’s Sinatra Living project has the bones in place for a swanky home worthy of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself. Ol’ Sol Eyes, if you will.

Now comes the time to give it its guts, heart and brains. 

“We're finishing up our sheeting,” project manager Adam Betemedhin said. “The next phase, we're going to be doing our plumbing rough-in, electrical rough-in. After we get that done and tested we'll do insulation, drywall and some of our finishes. Then we’ll go on to integrate some of our automation equipment. We're looking really good.”

Sponsored by the United States Department of Energy, Solar Decathlon pits 13 university teams to compete across 10 categories from energy efficiency to architecture, engineering, home life and more. UNLV took first among American universities in 2013 with its DesertSol home, now on display at the Las Vegas Spring Preserve.

Just to get to the competition, schools must submit a detailed proposal to be evaluated by a panel of engineers and scientists. Proposals are judged on the design of the home, a team’s ability raise the money for it, and their capacity for integrating curricula into the project.

The cross-disciplinary team features 25 students majoring in engineering, hotel administration, architecture, and allied health sciences.

One of the prime goals for Sinatra Living is design with aging in place in mind — the idea that this is a home that is adaptable and suitable to remain living in through one’s twilight years.

The home is designed to comply with the American with Disabilities Act from the start with touches like adjustable countertops that can accommodate both standing and wheelchair heights, doors that are wheelchair width. As medical equipment becomes critical to later life, Sinatra Living will prioritize its battery backup power for critical equipment in cases of power outage.

Balancing out the healthy, worry-free living and energy efficiency of the home has presented design challenges. Getting sufficient daylight, for example, can be a struggle for older people — Alzheimer’s patients’ symptoms can intensify as light fades — but large windows lower energy efficiency. To meet both needs, Sinatra Living has generous overhangs over large windows to allow sunlight into the 990-square-foot home while regulating temperature.

The Solar Decathlon team also is zeroing in on automation and smart living to a degree that wasn’t available to the 2013 squad.

Amazon has partnered with the team to allow access to Amazon Web Services and their engineers to place sensors throughout the house and track every last grain of data that gets generated to help streamline those automation and integration efforts in everything from lighting to heating and cooling to power management.

“We’re going into a time where everything is connected in some way or another. The way we're going about designing this home and monitoring, and tracking the process of this home really shows a step forward in homebuilding design,” Betemedhin said.

Amazon isn’t the only big-name tech company to lend a hand. Tesla donated a Powerwall unit, which is a battery to store energy from the house’s photovoltaic solar panels. The company is also providing a Model S to help meet the Solar Decathlon’s challenge of keeping an electric vehicle charged over the five-day event.

Sinatra Living is currently being assembled on UNLV's Paradise Campus. You can get a peek at the house at the send-off event Sept. 7, which will feature representatives from Tesla, Switch, the NV Energy Foundation, and other community sponsors of the project. 

Then, starting the week of Sept. 11, the team will disassemble the whole thing and bring the house to Denver for the competition, re-assembling it near the University of Colorado. By then, they’ll have the ability to fine-tune all of the home’s processes, down to the degree, volt, and drop of water, with all the data necessary to back up those decisions.

“It will be cool see the look on my teammates faces when they see how well this building is performing compared to an average home built by developers,” Betemedhin said.